Imitation and emulation. The ancient Greek teacher Longinus is among the first persons to address what would become a recurrent theme in the history of rhetoric and literary criticism: the sublime (elevated emotion; ecstasy). His reflections on the sublime can be found in On Sublimity (first century C.E.); it is there that he invites would-be writers to enter into “the way of imitation and emulation of great writers of the past” (142). The poet Homer, for Longinus, is the gold-standard for imitation; he is the writer that both the historian Herodotus and the philosopher Plato read closely, looking for hints as to how their writing might produce in readers “wonder and astonishment” as opposed to language that is “merely persuasive and pleasant” (137).
Competition. The way that Herodotus and Plato read Homer was, in Longinus’s view, agonistic (competitive). If you’re a writer, you read a poet like Homer not just with the aspiration of learning from him, but of also matching or outdoing him: “Plato could not have put such a brilliant finish on his philosophical doctrines or so often risen to poetical subjects and poetical language, if he had not tried, wholeheartedly, to compete for the prize against Homer” (142). This idea of writing as competition was broadly shared by the ancient Greeks, whose most famous playwrights (Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes) wrote for competitions put on each spring in honor of the god Dionysus. In Freudian terms, we might also say that competition is oedipal (akin to a son attempting to vanquish a father to obtain power or mates).
Imagine great writers as your audience. In reaching for sublime writing, Longinus recommends having great writers present to consciousness (143):
[I]t is good to imagine how Homer would have said the same thing, […] [G]reat figures [in the history of writing], presented to us as objects of emulation and, as it were, shining before our gaze, will somehow elevate our minds to the greatness of which we form a mental image. They will be even more effective if we ask ourselves ‘How would Homer or Demosthenes have reacted to what I am saying, if he had been here? What would his feelings have been?’ It makes it a great occasion if you imagine such a jury or audience […] and pretend that you are answering for what you write.
Immerse yourself in the atmosphere of books. It should be emphasized that by imitation Longinus is not advocating plagiarism. Rather, he likens the close reader of model writers to Pythia, famed priestess of Apollo at Delphi, who, when prophesying, stands in the midst of divine vapors that exhale from a “cleft in the ground” (142). This provides a hint as to how steeped in the aromatic liquors of great books Longinus thinks the serious aspirant to sublime writing should be. If you want to be an exemplary writer, it makes sense to be a cultist-like devotee of sublime authors.
A selection from Longinus’ On Sublimity begins on pg. 136 of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (edited by of Vincent Leitch, et. al., 2nd edition, 2010).